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Kids put on the back burner - Webber Library is closing
On November 29, Fourth Ward Council Member Barb Johnson berated her peers at the Ways and Means Committee meeting. She apologized for being parochial, but went on to say, “If our city closes Webber Park Library, it will be the disgrace of our city.” A recent survey conducted by the Youth Coordinating Board showed that Camden has the fewest youth services of any part of the city, and when asked, youth said the parks and the library were their two most commonly used resources.
There is more than enough blame to go around. The Minneapolis Public Library (MPL) relies heavily on state-funded Local Government Aid (LGA). Since 2003 MPL’s LGA funding has been cut by $2,999,879. In 2003 Minneapolis citizens urged the Library Trustees to keep everything open at reduced hours and they complied, giving Minneapolis some of the worst library hours of any major system in America.
This past September the Minneapolis Library Trustees held five public meetings, in which they presented three possible library scenarios for 2007. Webber Library was ‘closed’ in two of these scenarios. In the other scenario Webber Library would have been open three days a week. Surprisingly, across the city, people were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping all libraries open at reduced rates, rather than sticking it to one community. Equally surprising, despite the citizen feedback, the Library Trustees choose the alternative labeled “consistent service throughout,” and at the October 25 board meeting voted to close Webber Park, Southeast and Roosevelt Libraries, while the remaining 12 libraries would be open five days a week for 40 hours. Alan Hooker and Laura Waterman Wittstock, were the only Library Trustees to vote against closing these three libraries. It appears that the consistent part for the Webber, Southeast and Roosevelt communities is that they will consistently have no library service.
The public response was loud and clear. One thousand signatures were collected to keep Webber Library open. Council representatives reported getting hundreds of emails. Citizens packed Library Trustee Board Meetings and the City Council Chambers for the Ways and Means Committee meetings. Nick Coleman wrote tirelessly about the problem in the Star Tribune. Mayor Rybak responded by supporting the city giving $1.1 million in bridge funding and said he was committed to finding a long term solution. An amendment to the Mayor’s recommendations supported making $250,000 of the $1.1 million ongoing funding, which the Library Trustees insisted they needed to consider keeping libraries open. The Library Trustees responded back — if the city could come up with just $105,000 more in ongoing money they could keep all three libraries open. But on December 11, when the City Council vote for the 2007 budget was taken, Paul Ostrow presented an amendment that would make sure the money was one-time bridge funds, and Robert Lilligren, Lisa Goodman, Scott Benson, Don Samuels, Ralph Remington and Betsy Hodges voted with him — it passed 7 to 6. A motion by Sandy Colvin Roy gave the Library Board an additional $100,000 to bring the total to $1.2 million in bridge funds. But securing the $250,000 as one-time bridge funds was just the tip of the iceberg. A surprise that was tucked into Paul Ostrow’s amendment sealed the deal. The amendment removed $925,000 per year for 10 years from the Library Board’s budget. These were dollars that would have come from reducing the libraries capital plans. So it turned out that the additional money given from the “slightly emaciated heroes” of the City Council was too emaciated to allow for keeping Webber, Southeast and Roosevelt libraries open.
The official press release (12-21-06) from the MPL states, “Three community libraries — Roosevelt, Southeast, and Webber Park — will be temporarily closed on December 29 for budget reasons.” Clearly this is not about money. Webber Library would cost $109,246 to operate at the current level in 2007. This is less than 1/2 percent of the MPL’s 2007 of $23,906,194 budget. Perhaps it is about cutting your losses. If the Library Board is a dinosaur, Trustees may be like the “Unjust Steward” and are cutting their losses, to insure a brighter future for themselves. It has got to be tough to be the first board ever to close libraries in Minneapolis. Even during the depression, they found a way to keep libraries open.
In the short-term, we have lost Webber Library. The Library Trustees agreed to shutter and not sell the three libraries. If our state legislators increase LGA, there could be a brighter future for our library system and a brighter future for Webber. Many alternatives for future governance are being considered, including involving Hennepin County in some way or dissolving the independent Library Board altogether. Also, for the time being, we have lost the $1.9 million referendum money designated to Webber and the additional $225,000 that had been budgeted by four local neighborhood organizations for capital improvements at Webber Park Library. This could be the bright side of Paul Ostrow’s amendment. If this can be turned around and Webber is reopened, the capital dollars should still be there for Webber. If we don’t get to reap the benefits of the 2000 library referendum that the Fourth Ward supported, we have lost public trust. We have lost the largest teen book club in the city; 482 children have lost the opportunity to be a part of the summer reading program. Most importantly we have lost a vital piece of the fabric of our community - a gathering place of nearly 100 years.
I stopped into Webber Park Library before the Library Meeting on December 20. I picked up the last petition that I had left on the community board. It was good to talk to the “two Barbs,” who should be commended for the excellent work they have done there. Barb Elg mentioned that a teenage girl came in asking where the petition was. She wanted to make sure her signature was on it. Did this petition of 1000 provide any sense of hope for our children? My own children wrote R.T. Rybak, spoke at the City Council public hearing and agreed to be carted around with me as I went to meetings and gathered signatures. In trying to instill our sense of civic responsibility in our children what message are we giving them now that Webber Library is being closed anyway? Do we tell them that their voice and 1000 others mean nothing? That North Minneapolis is about vigils for the murdered and restricted privileges for the children who live here?
The next few months are critical. Contact the City Council, the Mayor, your Hennepin County Commissioners, your State Representatives and State Senators. Don’t let them forget that they allowed this disgrace of our city to happen and they can reverse it. Webber Park Library doors closed “temporarily” on December 29. Hug your children.
©2007 Camden News